It was a North Dakota running play at Rice-Eccles Stadium against Utah. There was a handoff, players grappled at the line of scrimmage, a lineman pulled to lead the running back around the right side. Then swoof! Something flashed into the picture, the lineman went flying off his feet and the running back bolted in the opposite direction.

What happened? Marquise Blair. The Utes’ chiseled 6-foot 2, 190-pound junior college transfer came up from his strong safety position with such ferocity he sent the 6-4, 305-pound lineman sprawling to the turf.

“You’ll see ‘Quise make a lot of plays this year,” Utes starting strong safety Chase Hansen said last week. “He flies around. He’s a great athlete, and he’s aggressive. He’s a stud, and he’s the type of guy that — as a safety — he pushes you.”

Blair may get called on to make even more plays Saturday against San Jose State with Hansen’s status in question this weekend.

Blair was an NJCAA all-American linebacker at Dodge City Community College in Kansas. That only happened because two years ago the NCAA blew up Blair’s plans the way he does run plays. The experience has turned into a blessing in disguise for Blair, who originally planned to play at Syracuse University.

“It made me grow up faster though,” Blair said. “I think it helped me a lot, actually, mentally. It happened so fast, then I just left and went to JUCO and I was by myself for the first time ever in my life.”

Blair grew up as one of six siblings, including five boys, raised by a single mother, Tonya Boykins, in Wooster, Ohio. The brothers — Marquise is the middle child of the five boys — played a lot of backyard football and sent one another crashing into bushes. They were competitive in everything. Video games regularly ended in fights.

The siblings also watched out for one another while their mother worked to support them.

“They are very tight-knit,” Wooster High football coach Doug Haas said. “They’re going to look after one another. They have the utmost love and respect for their mom in terms of what she’s done, working multiple jobs to provide and whatnot.”

Haas took over as Wooster’s football coach as Blair entered his sophomore year unsure if he would play again, preferring to focus on basketball. He changed his mind when school started, and Haas allowed him to re-join the program late under certain conditions.

Haas made Blair sit out the first three games. The coach recalls the first junior varsity game Blair played. Coaches stuck him at defensive end so they wouldn’t have to worry too much about the defensive schemes. Blair responded with seven sacks.

Haas and his staff moved Blair to cornerback and told him to cover his man all over the field, which he did “brilliantly.” He made 75 tackles as a junior, then garnered all-state honors and won his conference’s defensive player of the year award as a senior.

Haas always described Blair’s as a “twitchy” athlete, able to accelerate on a dime and get to top speed. Plays like Blair’s collision with the North Dakota lineman? Haas saw those sorts of plays so often that he and and his staff were “spoiled” by Blair.

“That just comes from not wanting to be embarrassed, not wanting to feel like you lost that rep,” Blair said. “That’s where it comes from. I feel like I want to win every rep against whoever I’m going against, whatever player it is, you got to win.”

Off the field, Haas characterized the soft-spoken Blair as the kid he could call up and ask to watch his three young children if Haas wanted to take his wife out for a date. 

“I love Marquise like a son,” Haas said. “My wife and I love him. We are so proud of him. To see where he has come from is just so special and proud for all of us. I can speak for the entire community from that standpoint.”

Going into his senior year of high school, Haas said the folks at Wooster High mapped out an academic plan for Blair with input from the Syracuse compliance office to assure he’d qualify under the NCAA standards. Blair executed the plan flawlessly. However, the NCAA kept Blair in a holding pattern through most of the summer. Then the NCAA rejected an online math class Blair took.

Camps had started by the time Blair found out he wasn’t eligible. Junior colleges came calling, and within four days Blair got on a plane by himself for the first time and flew to Dodge City, Kan., located a few hours west of Wichita.

Blair excelled on the field. He led the team in tackles (100), sacks (three) and interceptions (four) in 11 games from his linebacker position as a sophomore.

The off-field adjustment wasn’t as easy. He found himself in a new school in a strange place fending for himself. Blair said he and roommate Gary Johnson, who now is playing for the University of Texas, often shared food just to get by.

“We got through it though,” Blair said. “I think it changed my life.”

While in junior college, Blair thought a lot about the struggles his mother went through to provide for him and his siblings. He made up his mind to use football to put himself in position to help support his family.

While Blair was at Dodge City, Syracuse coach Scott Shafer got fired. When Utes defensive coordinator/safeties coach Morgan Scalley saw Blair’s speed and physical play, he knew Blair would fit perfectly into the Utes’ system.

“You watch the junior college film and you know what type of player he is,” Scalley said. “He’s nasty. He’s aggressive. The thing with him at times is being able to slow him down. ... I’d rather try to tame aggression than try to call it out. He’s also a very smart football player, a heady football player.”

Blair has made a smooth transition to strong safety. Blair has six tackles playing mostly as Hansen’s backup through two games, and was on the field on the final defensive possession against BYU last week in a 19-13 win.

“He’s a very good football player, first of all,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “That was very evident from Day 1 of fall camp. He’s done a good job of learning the system. We’re going to try to feed him more reps each week as the season goes on because he’s really good, and find roles for him.”

MARQUISE BLAIR

Height • 6 foot 2

Weight • 190 pounds

Position • Strong safety

Class • Junior

Hometown • Wooster, Ohio

False start to college career • Blair signed to play at Syracuse University out of high school, but the NCAA ruled him ineligible before he was set to begin his freshman year. He went to Dodge City Community College in Kansas. In two seasons at Dodge City CC, he registered six interceptions, 164 tackles and 11 sacks. He was an National Junior College Athletic Association all-American selection as a sophomore.